Zimmerman a banner success as Nats' leader
Third baseman is the face of franchise despite lack of national attention
WASHINGTON -- A larger-than-life portrait of Ryan Zimmerman drapes over the back of a parking structure at Nationals Park, easily visible to anyone in the cheap seats.
Superimposed upon a red backdrop and white team logo, the image is of Zimmerman swinging a bat, looking down over the expanse of this five-year-old ballpark. He appears almost to be surveying his domain.
And this is his domain -- perhaps more than anyone's given his role in reinvigorating the franchise. Despite a relative lack of national attention, Zimmerman has quietly become the Nationals in the way that Derek Jeter is the Yankees and Chipper Jones the Braves.
Zimmerman was born into this franchise, tabbed to lead the Nationals back to prominence. He has agreed to stay here for years to come. Now that playoff baseball has returned to the capital, in short, Zimmerman is the torch-bearer.
"And rightfully so," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "The guy's the face of the franchise."
His is the rare story of an organization's vision developing as planned, outward from the core. Mere months after moving to Washington, still years before that parking structure rose from an undeveloped area north of the Anacostia River, the Nats selected Zimmerman fourth overall in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. As a college phenom, he made the Majors later that summer, settling in at third base for good the following spring.
And the Nationals were bad. Quite bad, as it were. So Zimmerman slogged through six consecutive losing seasons, posting strong individual numbers despite the mediocrity around him, which did not deter the third baseman from signing a six-year, $100-million contract extension this spring. All the while, teammates arrived and departed as the gears of the front office's rebuilding plan cranked.
Now, that plan is complete, if the postseason logos in foul ground are any indication. And although no one else remains from that 2005 roster, Zimmerman -- despite playing through an injured shoulder to submit another standout season -- is receiving only a splinter of the attention.
Not that he is complaining.
"I don't know if it's so much about me," Zimmerman said. "I think it's more about this organization and the fans. They've been through a lot, as well. For them to come to the park these last four, five, six years when we weren't such a good team, and now for them finally to get a team that's going to be good obviously this year, but I think for years to come -- so much has been made about me because I've been here the longest, but there's a lot more that goes into this than just the guy who's been here the most."
Such as, for example, a headline-generating pitching staff, particularly in the wake of the organization's decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg. Much ink has also spilled over rookie Bryce Harper, thanks to the 19-year-old's immediate success and frenetic style of play.
On the mound, Washington's bullpen has shined. Shortstop Ian Desmond has garnered acclaim for his career offensive season. And so on and so forth, up and down the roster.
But in the midst of all that, consider Zimmerman. Shortly after signing his new deal, which could keep him draped across that parking garage through 2020, the third baseman learned that his right shoulder was riddled with inflammation. He eventually received a cortisone shot, then another, another and yet another -- four in total, for an injury that will require surgery after the season.
It mattered not. After receiving the first of those injections amid a mid-April slump, Zimmerman hit .288 with 24 home runs and 88 RBIs the rest of the way, a span of 130 games. Hitting behind Harper and in front of Adam LaRoche, he once again became a rock.
"You look at that lineup, he's batting three-hole on a postseason-contending ballclub," said Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who served up one of his nine home runs this year to Zimmerman. "From a baseball standpoint, when you come in to play them, he's the guy."
Zimmerman also maintains that reputation -- "the guy" -- defensively at third base, despite some well-publicized throwing issues in recent years.
"And you guys just see him making Gold-Glove plays at third and hitting balls out of the ballpark and driving in runs," Suzuki said. "The part that nobody gets to see is the way he goes about his business, how he comes to the park every day, works hard, pumps guys up. He knows what he has to do. He earns that respect by the way he goes about his business."
So imagine what this playoff berth means to Zimmerman, given his stature in Washington and his time spent waiting. Consider Zimmerman in the context of Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who is playing in his fourth playoff series despite merely one full regular season to his credit. Or Jones, who joined the Braves full-time in 1995 and earned a championship ring that autumn.
In the District, Zimmerman has enjoyed no such instant gratification. He reached the good times only after slogging through the bad. So the opportunity before him is one the third baseman embraces, even if he cannot do so actively. A task awaits within his domain.
"It's hard for us to sit back and look at something while you're still in the moment," Zimmerman said. "After it's all over, however it all ends -- hopefully it ends with us winning the World Series. But if it doesn't end that way, you'll sit back and look at this season as obviously a success. It's just going to be a matter of how successful it is, how far we can go, how much we can make happen in this run."
Should they make everything happen, another banner will come to drape over Nationals Ballpark. And Zimmerman, as much as anyone in uniform, will deserve his share of the credit.